Health / Expert Advice

What Actually Happens to Our Bodies When We Skip the Gym?

Experts explain the physical and mental effects of a fitness break.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we fall into workout ruts from time to time. And no one, not even the most intense fitness devotee, is immune to their motivation-sucking force. You decide to skip the gym one day and suddenly, it’s been a week since you last exercised.

It is what it is. And we’re sure you always find your way back. But what exactly happens when you put your workouts on hold for awhile? In the spirit of pushing through, getting back on track, and making ourselves stronger, we set out for answers. We spoke with a group of experts to uncover the effects—physical and mental—of skipping a workout. Or more.

How quickly will I fall out of shape?

Whether you’ve been killing it on the cardio machines or working with weights, there’s no doubt you’ve pushed hard to get where you are. If you’re like us, your first concern when you skip the gym is how quickly you’ll fall out of shape. Generally, the longer you’ve been working out, the longer it’ll take to lose that endurance or muscle. But it can seriously vary from person to person.

“This depends on many factors, including what type of fitness (cardiovascular, muscle strength, etc.) you’ve been doing and how long you’ve been working out,” says Clifford Stark, Sports Physician and Medical Director at Sports Medicine at Chelsea. Basically, everyone’s level of deconditioning is individual to them.

Don’t sweat it if you’ve only missed out on about a week of gym time. Seven days isn’t very hurtful in the long-term. But try not to make it much longer than that. According to Stark, studies suggest that your VO2 max (the maximum amount of air you can breath during an intense workout) will drop significantly after two weeks. And your muscle strength will generally decrease after one month.

“Much of this effect can be minimized by doing much less intense exercise than usual during the period of relative inactivity,” he says. “It’s helpful to break up the inactive periods with some form of exercise to minimize the degree of deconditioning.”

What are the mental effects?

Our muscles aren’t the only things affected when we skip the gym. Our mental state can take a hit, too. “As we know, exercise can help decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, and helps protect us from diabetes, strokes, and several other diseases,” says Ryan Foose, Performance Consultant in the Sports Psychology field at Strong Mind Performance Consulting. “But exercise can have major mental impacts, as well. And has been shown to help those individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, and other illnesses.”

So, what exactly happens to us mentally and emotionally when we skip the gym? “If someone works out regularly and skips several workouts, there can be certain effects and changes in mindset,” says Nicole Lambert, Sports Performance Psychologist. “He or she may experience an increase in stress, lower self-esteem, embarrassment, guilt, depression, and lack of motivation.” She also adds that we risk dwelling on a skipped workout, which can make us feel worse.

“When established as part of an everyday routine, exercise helps self-esteem and elevates mood,” adds Neil Busuttil, Chief Psychologist at Kings County Hospital. “Skipping can have a detrimental effect on one’s mood and lead to the development of a new routine, one of stagnation. The body and mind will become used to inactivity.”

How do I get back into it?

Falling off track is stressful. And it can be tempting to give up altogether. But it’s worth it to get back to the gym. It might just take a new strategy this time. “The reason why so many people quit going to the gym is because their goals are not clearly defined,” says Foose. “Are these goals specific, measurable, achievable, and realistic?” Consider these factors before you jump right back in.

And make sure you’re doing it for you. “We tend to not do something when someone tells us to do it,” explains Foose. “It takes away the autonomy from us.” No one can want it for you. You need to want it for yourself.

Remember breaks are okay.

Before you let guilt get the best of you and gun it to the gym, remember that breaks are normal. Rest days are critical to fitness success because they allow your body and mind time to recover. So, chill! And give yourself a, well, break.

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